Athletes with Disordered Eating: 7 Ways to Help Them

Image: Martin Degryse /

Image: Martin Degryse /

Many would think that athletes are the healthiest people out there. But truth is, they too are susceptible to health problems such as eating disorders especially if they are pressured to be thin. This problem may develop from their coach’s expectations, the culture of their sports or for personal perfectionism.


If left ignored, an eating disorder might hamper their performance and they will not be able to progress to the next level of their training. Therefore, it is crucial for coaches, training partners and parents to recognize the warning signs and assist in managing this problem.

What are the warning signs?

Issue Symptoms
Weight changes
  • Sudden loss of weight
  • Wide fluctuations in weight over a short period of time
Food behavior
  • Consumption of large amounts of food that are inconsistent with the athlete’s weight
  • Evidence of eating in private
  • Avoidance of eating or refusal to join in social occasions involving eating
  • Uncomfortable behavior when food is present
  • Worry about being too fat
  • Constantly comparing self with others
  • Mood swings
Physical signs
  • Cessation of periods
  • Tooth decay
  • Indigestion, constipation, bloating
  • Cold intolerance
  • Stress fractures
Evidence of problem behaviors
  • Excessive exercise in addition to set training program

Here are a few guidelines for coaches, training partners and parents to deal with athletes who are suspected to have problems with disordered eating.

  1. Recognize athletes with compulsive and perfectionist personalities.
    The drive and motivation might be very valuable characteristics; however athletes must be assisted in making the appropriate and realistic goals and achievements in order to ensure their efforts are positive, not counterproductive.

  2. Create an environment that supports healthy nutrition and weight control principles.
    Apart from allowing the athlete to set realistic body weight and fat loss targets, coaches and parents should ensure healthy nutrition advice is accessible.

  3. Beware of the warning signs.
    Try to be objective in collecting evidence of a suspected problem. Do not overreact!

  4. Confront the athlete when appropriate.
    Express your concern and talk about objective data such as changes in performance or signs of unhappiness. Do not try to diagnose as the athlete may attempt to deny the problem.

  5. When not appropriate, talk to someone who can.
    If you’re unable to confront the athlete, speak to someone who can, perhaps the coach or the doctor or someone in the athlete’s family.

  6. Seek professional help.
    You are not trained to deal with disordered eating but you have the right to organise this step. Find a professional who specialises in this field. Make sure the athlete understands that you still care for him/her but you do not support his/her behavior.

  7. Support professional advice and treatment plan.
    Remain caring, supportive and objective. Be prepared to be patient and flexible as the athlete may need constant reassessment of his/her goals.


  1. Practical Sports Nutrition: Louise Burke 2007